Travelling isn’t always easy or enjoyable when you’re relegated to stereotypes and deeply established racism. What should be a fun experience often turns out to be a huge frustration if you are not white. This past May, my sister, Cindy, graduated from Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. During her last semester there, she traveled abroad to London where she took classes and also interned at a market research and consulting firm. Cindy used her semester abroad as not only an opportunity to enrich herself academically, but also culturally. She decided to travel from place to place, visiting Greece, Portugal, Belgium and France. While she did experience some racially-driven frustrations during her travels abroad, it was when she hit U.S. soil that she encountered the most bothersome of these interactions.
After studying abroad for four months, Cindy finally reached her hometown, New York. Of course, she had to go through customs at JFK airport since she’d been coming in from a different country. The process was relatively simple — for white people, that is. A line to the left, filled with mostly white people, was moving quickly. They were cleared in a minute or less and on their way home. Unfortunately, people of color were not able to enjoy such a luxury. Cindy received what she called a “special mark” on her customs slip and was told to join the line to the right, along with other non-white people. This line (unlike the one to the left) was moving at snail-pace. It was incredibly long and people were being called off of it to be searched in private rooms. An Indian man ahead of her in line was called out by a customs officer and searched privately — I should add that, after he’d been taken off of the line, Cindy did not see him return. An Asian man in front of Cindy was called to the window. While nearly all white people on the line to the right were able to walk off in under a minute, the Asian man stood at the window for nearly ten minutes before being cleared to leave.
When about 15 minutes on that line had passed, Cindy was finally called to the front. However, instead of passing through like others had, she was asked to follow a customs officer without any sort of explanation. The officer ordered her to leave her carry-on suitcase at the door of the room she was being led into. As she entered the room (filled with people of color), her passport was taken from her and put into a folder, and she was instructed to take a seat.
In this room, no one explained to her what was happening or why her passport and belongings had been stripped from her possession. Cindy was held in this room for half an hour before being told she could leave. Both confused and irritated, Cindy put her feelings aside and politely asked the woman at the desk, “Was there something wrong with my passport?” The woman coldly replied, “No,” and, again, offered no explanation as to why she’d been held.
At this point, Cindy was exhausted and ready to see her family who she’d been away from for four long months. She picked up her two suitcases from the baggage claim area and headed for the line of people who were also on their way out. Everyone was quickly passing through the final checkpoint, Cindy included. The guard checked her passport, handed it back to her, and told her to have a nice day. It was then that an older Caucasian male guard approached her and the guard who had just cleared her passport. He blocked Cindy’s path, leaned over to the guard, and said, “Hold up, I got this one.”
Both Cindy and the guard who’d cleared her looked up at the male guard with confusion. At this point, he began questioning Cindy about where she’d been coming from. She replied politely, explaining that she was a Boston University student returning from studying abroad in London. He then asked what kinds of things she’d purchased while abroad. Cindy replied saying that she’d bought a few things such as shoes, jewelry and other small trinkets. He then inquired about how much money she’d spent on them and, although this was strange, she told him she’d spent around $150. The man then condescendingly asked how she could have only spent $150 when she’d previously stated that she bought things such as jewelry and shoes, which should have been more expensive. This was when she was told that her suitcases needed to be searched.
Cindy dug through her purse for the keys to unlock her suitcases. The man searched all of her bags, carry-ons included. When he didn’t find anything after searching for nearly 25 minutes, she was allowed to leave. Although she was the only person stopped and searched at the last checkpoint, Cindy was offered no explanation for the search.
After this unbelievably frustrating experience, Cindy burst into tears as soon as she got home. She was simply overwhelmed by the mistreatment she’d endured, and I don’t blame her. Being stereotyped and criminalized when you know you are innocent is incredibly aggravating and unfair. Cindy, along with all of the other people of color, did not deserve to be treated in this manner. Just because someone is not white does not mean that they should be treated as a convict — treated as guilty until proven innocent.
At the very least, people deserve to travel without having to worry about being seen as potential felons.